Save modern pentathlon

The Winter Olympics are taking on an X Games feel. Even the older sports are modernizing — biathlon has caught on with TV-friendly pursuit and mass start competition, and luge has added a cool relay event.

The Summer Games don’t have as much room to grow, and IOC President Jacques Rogge has been in more of a trimming mode. If we’re adding a sport, Rogge and company believe, we must cut one.

And that’s reasonable. The Summer Games have outgrown most cities’ capability to host them.

Not that the IOC’s decisions on cutting and adding sports have been reasonable. Rio won’t have softball, but it’s scrambling to build a golf course. Then organizers will have to deal with security for the whole area.

Baseball and softball have joined forces in an effort to get back in the Games, competing against karate, squash, wushu, sport climbing, wakeboarding and roller sports. But before one sport is added, one must be eliminated.

One wrinkle to consider: The IOC groups its sports according to the governing federation. That means all the aquatic sports (swimming, diving, water polo, synchronized swimming) are one sport, just as the two wrestling disciplines (freestyle, Greco-Roman) are a single sport. (That’s also why baseball and softball can go in together as long as they’re under the same umbrella.)

So if you’re thinking synchronized swimming should get the axe, think again. Unless the IOC decides to overhaul its bureaucracy on the fly, an entire sports federation will be taken out of the games.

The only realistic cuts are taekwondo, controversially added to the Olympics ahead of karate, and modern pentathlon.

On the surface, modern pentathlon would be no great loss. It’s an esoteric and expensive sport requiring access to a pool, a shooting range (now modernized to lasers), fencing equipment, and horses. Britain has managed to boost participation to five figures, but it’s hard to imagine that sort of interest elsewhere. In the USA, it’s not exactly a popular youth sports option.

The argument for saving it is that it preserves the legacy of modern Olympic founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who introduced the sport to the Games. Perhaps that’ll sway some sentimental people within the IOC,

Another argument: Modern pentathlon uses existing facilities (no extra stadiums, baseball fields or golf courses) and adds less than 100 athletes to the Olympic Village.

I’ll add another: Modern pentathlon is a uniquely Olympic sport. Not like golf or rugby, the two recent additions that have lives outside the Games. Not like soccer or tennis, though they’ve carved out solid niches for themselves in the Games.

If the Olympics won’t be the pinnacle of achievement in a given sport, I don’t see the point in adding that sport to the program. If a sport is historically linked to the Olympics, I don’t see the point in removing it.

Modern pentathlon has adapted to modern times. All five events now take place in one day. The running and shooting have been combined, biathlon-style. In London, that meant half the competition (or three-fifths, if you count running and shooting separately) took place in Greenwich Park. In Rio, the idea is to run all five events in one stadium.

The numbers don’t favor modern pentathlon. A 2009 report on the existing Olympic sports found pentathlon lagging behind taekwondo and other sports in most categories — number of participating countries, media interest, etc. Europe likes it, but other continents are really interested. (That said, some of the sports bidding for inclusion are pretty weak as well.)

So the sentimental argument is all we have. But you’d think, given the low cost of keeping such a unique Olympic tradition alive, that would be enough.

Here’s a radical solution for solving the problem: Merge the pentathlon federation with the equestrian federation. Or the triathlon federation.

Silly, you say? Is it any sillier than having swimming, diving, water polo and synchronized swimming under the same federation because they all take place in water?

Perhaps such a move would violate the spirit of Rogge’s mandate to shrink the Games. But so does building a bloody golf course in Rio. And the point isn’t supposed to be the number of sports — it’s supposed to be the number of athletes and the number of events. With modern pentathlon, we’re talking about two events and less than 100 athletes. Tighten up the qualification criteria in swimming or track, and you’ll have the same net effect.

So you may say the Olympics don’t have much to gain by keeping modern pentathlon. Perhaps not. But they have less to gain by cutting it. Why dash the dreams of competitors to satisfy a bureaucratic statistic counting the number of federations who have a seat at the table?

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Beau Dure

The guy who wrote a bunch of soccer books and now runs a Gen X-themed podcast while substitute teaching and continuing to write freelance stuff.

4 thoughts on “Save modern pentathlon”

  1. Agree 100%. Modern pentathlon is not exactly the crowd-pleaser (read: sponsor-pleaser) that BMX and other gimmicky X-Games events are. But it is the only sport that was created by the founder of the Olympics, for the Olympics. (If the MP federation were smart, they would have renamed the sport “Olympic Pentathlon” decades ago.) It’s sort of like an Olympics All-Around competition, circa 1900. It is the brainchild and the baby of Baron de Coubertin, and to eliminate it would be a posthumous insult to the Games’ founder.

    Rogge and co. should chew on that for a while the next time they sit down to enjoy a nice wakeboarding meet.

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